What we learned from NRL pre-season trials
Injury chaos, positional switches, new combinations, young guns, round one bolters and more - there was plenty to digest in a huge weekend of rugby league.
Here's what we learned from week two of the NRL pre-season trials.
MELBOURNE STORM 12 NZ WARRIORS 6
1. Jahrome Hughes is still the frontrunner for the Melbourne fullback job but Scott Drinkwater remains a player of immense promise.
There are still some rough edges on the Terrigal junior's game but his speed, anticipation and willingness to support around the ruck were all on show in the Storm's 12-6 loss.
Drinkwater was one of the best players in the Queensland Cup last season and performed well in his NRL debut. He is at a point now where he's capable of playing top grade football and that may not be available to him in Melbourne for some time. It is both a good and bad problem for Craig Bellamy.
2. New Zealand released Shaun Johnson into the wild at the end of last year without a firm replacement and judging from the trial performance of Adam Keighran and Chanel Harris-Tevita that decision remains far from finalised.
Keighran was capable and has the better kicking game and is also a good goalkicker. Harris-Tevita seemed a little out of his depth against Melbourne but will no doubt be better for the run. No doubt Stephen Kearney will take all the time he can before naming Blake Green's halves partner for round one.
3. Issac Luke is reportedly free to leave the Warriors whenever he chooses and part of New Zealand's stance on the Test stalwart is the club's confidence in Nathaniel Roache.
A nippy runner with a good workrate, Roache has lost much of the last few seasons to injury but he's a player of immense promise. In this match, his first outing in some time, Roache showed he's lost none of his considerable potential. Kearney may not want to roll into the season with a rookie halfback and an inexperienced hooker but Roache is ready to go.
- Nick Campton
DRAGONS 18 NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS 10
1. It's too early to be talking Origin.
But that's exactly the heights Newcastle backrower Lachlan Fitzgibbon should be striving for in 2019.
Camped on the Knights left-edge, the free-wheeling backrower showed his combination with five-eighth Kayln Ponga will be a thing of beauty this year.
While Ponga's pass for Fitzgibbon's first-half try was all-class, it was the superb line that the edge forward ran which left the Dragons defence clutching.
Every week, the right-edge defence of any opposition the Knights come up against will want to have done their homework.
2. The loss of wingers Nene McDonald (Cowboys) and Jason Nightingale (retired) was an area of concern for Saints coach Paul McGregor in the off-season.
Worry no longer, Mary.
The Dragons unearthed a round one bolter in the shape of Fijian winger Mikaele Ravalawa.
The powerful 21-year-old was a menace for the Knights defence, proof of which came via his two tries in just 40 minutes.
Ravalawa scored his first try after receiving a cut-out pass from Matt Dufty and stepping inside four defenders to score, thank you very much.
The Fijian winger claimed his second try in the 78th minute to secure the Dragons 18-10 win.
A former rugby union player as a junior, Ravalawa switched to rugby league after being recruited to the Raiders in 2017.
That season, Ravalawa scored 12 tries in 22 games and won Canberra's under 20s player of the year award. He was also named in the Fijian side for the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
3. With Gareth Widdop set to start the season at fullback, the Dragons now have the balance in their spine to win the premiership.
The current generation of fullbacks are virtually used as second five-eighths and with Widdop, that's exactly what the Dragons have.
It was blatantly obvious after just a few minutes of the trial how effective Widdop's licence to roam, while Corey Norman and Ben Hunt steer the side, will be in 2019.
The club captain was vocal from the back and physically he also appeared to handle the extra running required at fullback.
If anything, Widdop could prove even more damaging than what he was in 2018, by being able to pick his moments.
If there was one shaky element of his trial, it was under the high-ball. On the one bomb the Knights hoisted high, Widdop caught the footy between his legs.
CANBERRA RAIDERS 28 BULLDOGS 22
1. After a breakout debut season in 2018, Lachlan Lewis could be relegated to the lower grades to begin the year. In a strong indication of his Round 1 team, Dean Pay opted to start Newcastle recruit Jack Cogger in the halves alongside Kieran Foran, with Lewis coming on late in the trial. Cogger and Foran combined well in their first official hit out together in promising signs for an attacking unit that's struggled in recent years.
2. Highly regarded rookie Corey Horsburgh continues to impress at every opportunity and is in serious contention to jag a debut off the bench in Canberra's season opener. The 21-year-old front-rower possesses a crafty offload and strong work ethic and can provide size in the pack following the departures of Shannon Boyd and Junior Paulo.
3. There are few greater sights in rugby league than front-rowers in the clear.
The Bega crowd were treated to just that, with Bulldogs prop Aiden Tolman finding himself in open space with only Raiders fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad to beat to bag a rare pre-season meat pie. Tolman was put through a huge hole by Will Hopoate, ran 20m, trampled the Raiders number one and planted it down for a four-pointer.
The supremely consistent Tolman is a key figure for Canterbury this season, with the pack's go-forward a concern due to David Klemmer's departure. Dylan Napa is a quality replacement, but the former Rooster is primarily an enforcer rather than a metre-eater.
- Tim Williams
RABBITOHS 8 PENRITH PANTHERS 28
1. Penrith are searching for their starting dummy half and Sione Katoa got the jump on Wayde Egan, starting the match and playing 60-straight minutes before being relieved.
Katoa scored the opening try and showed plenty of attacking nous around the ruck. Egan managed to bag a try assist in the second half with a well-placed grubber kick but Katoa's improved workrate and fitness should have him in the box seat to start the season opener against Parramatta.
2. For a long time, Penrith's problem has been one of overpopulation - they had more good young players than they knew what to do with. Corey Harawira-Naera is good enough to start as a backrower in the NRL, but he had to leave the Panthers to find that opportunity. Penrith's junior development has been close to the best in the league in recent years and this is the unfortunate cost of excellence.
But now Penrith find themselves in a situation where they do not have back-ups of any significant experience should Viliame Kikau be down for an extended period. From all reports it would take a worst-case scenario for Kikau to miss any more than a few weeks but it's worth keeping in mind.
3. By all accounts Dylan Edwards has beaten out Dallin Watene-Zelezniak for the starting fullback spot. The Bellingen junior's talent has never been questioned but his durability can be given he's only played 25 matches since debuting in 2016.
A strong runner with good support play, Edwards made a promising return against South Sydney and showed little ill effects from the shoulder injury that ended his season after just eight games last year.
- Nick Campton
NQ COWBOYS 22 GOLD COAST TITANS 16
1. Bryce Cartwright needs to get serious about being a professional NRL footballer. The Titans' back-rower showed some nice touches in his side's 22-16 trial loss to the Cowboys but his childish errors aren't acceptable at the elite level.
He bombed a certain try with a silly around-the-back flick pass which belongs with the Harlem Globetrotters. Then he failed to put his body on the line as Te Maire Martin, 19kg lighter, brushed him off like fairy floss to score. He needs to play tougher and smarter.
2. The Cowboys' halves battle is hotting up. Te Maire Martin was seen as the man to partner Michael Morgan for round one but on this evidence, Jake Clifford should be North Queensland's No.6. It wasn't just his 18-point haul and hat-trick of tries, which included the 78th minute matchwinner.
When the game was on the line in the second half, Clifford stepped up with a clever series of short kicks to turn the screws on the Titans. At 21, he looks the goods.
3. North Queensland need their Big Three - Matt Scott, Jason Taumalolo and Jordan McLean - to stay fit this season. The trio only played 20 minutes on Saturday night but during that time, they monstered the Titans in midfield. For the Cowboys to rocket back into title contention this year, McLean and Scott must be there to assert a midfield presence.
- Peter Badel
CRONULLA SHARKS 28 MANLY SEA EAGLES 22
1. Manly could be forced to turn to a new recruit to start the season at fullback following Tom Trbojevic's injury prognosis.
The Sea Eagles fear Trbojevic could be out for six weeks after he pulled up with a hamstring injury when returning a kick in the club's trial loss to Cronulla, forcing him to leave the game at Shark Park and not return.
If Manly's marquee man is ruled out, former Rooster and Titan Brendan Elliot could fill the No.1 jersey, after he assumed the role from the departed Trbojevic on Saturday night.
Elliot has played 40 matches in a stop-start NRL career since he debuted in 2014 and spent just seven of those games in the No.1 jersey for Newcastle in 2017. He played just three games for the Gold Coast last year before he linked up with the Sea Eagles over the summer.
2. He didn't feature on the weekend but teenager Albert Hopoate could be in the frame for Manly come round one.
Returning from an anterior cruciate ligament injury, Hopoate turns 18 on Monday and will be eligible to face the Sydney Roosters next week.
"He's in our top-30 squad, so anyone who is involved in that is a genuine chance," Manly captain Daly Cherry-Evans said of Hopoate.
"He's trained the house down and is going really well. He's just got back from the contact phase of his knee injury.
"I hope his story is a successful one and I'm excited to hopefully play alongside him this year at some stage."
3. The Sharks look to have unearthed a handful of young guns, headlined by centre Bronson Xerri.
The 18-year-old Aquinas Colts junior was brilliant for Cronulla, scoring a try while also setting up another two.
Big, strong and fast, Xerri is the complete package and is highly rated by the club.
Fellow youngsters Kyle Flanagan, Billy Magoulis and William Kennedy also impressed in the win over Manly.
BRISBANE BRONCOS 26 WYNNUM-MANLY 12
1. The Broncos are facing a serious problem with lock Tevita Pangai Jr's recurring hamstring issues.
Pangai only lasted 18 minutes into his first hit-out of the season on Saturday night before feeling his troublesome right hamstring "pop". Pangai has spent the entire off-season carefully strengthening his hamstrings in the hope of getting through the year unscathed. But the fact he has gone down in the first game of the year, at trial pace, is a major concern for the Broncos. Pangai is now racing the clock to be fit for Round 1.
2. Pangai's injury concerns come on the back of highly-rated prop Payne Haas being suspended for the opening four games of the NRL season. Haas' suspension for lying to the NRL's integrity unit will hurt the Broncos on the back of Pangai's injury. Luckily for Brisbane, they have a string of middle forwards ready to step up.
Teenager Thomas Flegler was sensational in the Wynnum-Manly trial and Pat Carrigan was solid off the bench. Don't be surprised to see veteran Shaun Fensom make his Broncos debut in Round 1 either. Fensom is a reliable player who could plug a hole for Brisbane in the middle with little fuss.
3. The Broncos are blessed with a glut of young playmakers pushing to play in the NRL. The pressure is well and truly on incumbent halves Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima following Brisbane's past two trials.
Young guns Tom Dearden, Cory Paix, Tanah Boyd and Sean O'Sullivan have all shown glimpses of brilliance throughout the pre-season. The Broncos are well stocked in sixes and sevens and the heat will be on Milford and Nikorima to fire or else coach Anthony Seibold can go looking elsewhere for options.
- Travis Meyn